Take this with several handfuls of salt, but "Under the Knife" is probably one of the most ambitious installments of Gotham yet. As the second part of what might end up being a four-part finale (we do only have two episodes left in season one), tonight's episode feels like (wait for it) a setup for future episodes. But, unlike last week's episode, the crisscrossing subplots of "Under the Knife" feel uniformly important. That doesn't mean that every story is consistently good: Edward Nygma's pseudo-origin story incident is important without being interesting, and Oswald Cobblepot's unplanned confrontation with Sal Maroni feels rushed and inconsequential.
On the bright side, Barbara Kean's story is surprisingly involving. When graded on a Gotham-specific curve, her seduction by Milo Ventimiglia's still-charmless Ogre (I'm sure Ventimiglia is capable of being more compelling than an inanimate plank of wood ... he just hasn't been on Gotham yet ... ) is compelling, albeit in a Hannibal Lite kind of way. So while I do wonder what happened to Fish Mooney — oh, you know, she's just been gut-shot while fleeing from a secret island prison in a stolen helicopter, no big deal — I did appreciate that more pressing stories got the attention they deserve.
Since tonight's episode is mostly decent, let's start with its weaker segments. Nygma's showdown with Officer Tom Dougherty feels clumsy and tiresome despite a solid performance from Cory Michael Smith. As the puppy-dog-pathetic Nygma, Smith is sympathetically cringe-worthy in the scene where he confronts Dougherty, the kind of smug stick figure who insists that beating a woman is okay because “they need a firm hand.” Talk about blowing the lid off of domestic abuse!
Moreover, Nygma and Dougherty’s joyless campy showdown — and Nygma's story in general — is tacky. This is the kind of agonizingly misguided origin story that the show's pilot promised. I hate seeing Nygma become a garden-variety psychopath when he guts Dougherty as a nearby elevated train sends sparks all over him. Nygma may become a more complex character later on, but in tonight's episode, Nygma looks like any number of serial killers designed by imaginatively challenged writers. The only difference between Nygma and a fetish-driven murderer on Hannibal is that we know Nygma will later become a super-villain. In that sense, the scene where Nygma kills Dougherty is designed for the show's elusive ideal audience: anyone willing to settle for a show that encourages you to gasp with recognition every time a major character gets closer to becoming the personality you know him/her as.
Maroni's ambush isn't much better than Nygma's since it brought Cobblepot a little closer to being the enterprising (but crooked!) businessman he will inevitably become as the Penguin. Still, it's nice to see three scenery-devouring performers like Carol Kane, David Zayas, and Robin Lord Taylor co-exist in a single scene (I'm specifically thinking of the scene where Maroni makes Mama Kapelput faint). I also think the scene where Kapelput begs her son to tell the truth about what he does for a living is affecting, though that's to be expected since Kane and Taylor are the show's MVPs.
It's also not surprising to see episode director T.J. Scott try and fail to stick the landing of Cobblepot's story. There's nothing theoretically wrong with the sudden tonal shift from mother and son's teary exchange to Cobblepot's murder and disposal of Maroni's delivery man. Miller does a characteristically fine job of acting like an actor whose skin is an ill-fitting costume. But there's nothing remarkable about Scott’s direction of this scene, which feels stuck halfway between intentional comedy and miscalculated self-parody.
Both Bruce Wayne and Jim Gordon's investigations are perfectly fine, though neither one is especially imaginative. The scene where Alfred talks to Bruce before agreeing to accompany him (discreetly) at the Wayne Charity Ball is not only believable, but also effectively cute. I like the little wink Sean Pertwee gives David Mazouz when Alfred tries to be as blunt but respectful of Bruce's Selina-Kyle-related needs by telling him that he knows what Bruce, as a “healthy young lad,” wants with Selina. That line — so dated and forced in its gentility — really suits the show's version of Alfred. And Pertwee's nervous energy is hysterical; he looks like a sick athlete whose doctor has just told him he no longer needs to keep his weight off his feet.
Gordon's investigation also has its moments, though it’s largely unremarkable. Like Bruce's investigation, Gordon’s hunt for the Ogre limps toward a conclusion we won't get to for another episode or three. But the scene where Jacob Skolimski (Daniel Davis, formerly Niles on The Nanny) fulfills his role as the deranged character witness of the week is terrific, mostly because Davis's line delivery is freakishly commanding (I was reminded of Len Cariou as Sweeney Todd). But again, Gordon's renewed manhunt isn’t that interesting, nor was the revelation that the Ogre is actually a hard-luck kid with no self-esteem, mommy issues, and plastic-surgery-related trauma. The fact that even Harvey Bullock and Sarah Essen scoff at the Ogre's motivating backstory is telling. If nothing else, tonight's episode suggests that nobody should have a backstory on Gotham. It's just not a good idea!
The most promising part of “Under the Knife” is the mentor/pupil dynamic the Ogre tries to foster with Barbara Kean. Episode writer John Stephens does what none of Gotham’s other creators have by giving Kean a chance to express what she's feeling post-breakup, and not just in a stereotypical "I need a girl's night out" fit. Stephens gets at a previously unexplored aspect of the character when he has Kean tell the Ogre, "and if a bus hit me tomorrow, no one would care." That line’s petulance complements the pissy-ness of Barbara's other memorable outburst tonight: "Once you saw the real me, you would run screaming like everyone else."
It's hard to tell where Kean’s anger is coming from since it's been previously unexpressed. But I am interested in where her frustration will take her, especially if the Ogre is serious about helping her discover the real Barbara Kean, or in his words: "The person I am now, I created. I brought him into being. I can do the same for you.”
Then again, in light of what happens to Barbara in the comics, Kean might not last that long. I won’t say more than that for the sake of any reader who wants to remain semi-virginal in their lack of context. But while I suspect I'll be disappointed by what happens to Barbara, I am glad that Gotham’s creators aren’t all asleep at the wheel.
- Dougherty's repeated taunt of "Riddleman" is so obnoxious, and not intentionally or productively. We get it, he's one of the jocks from Revenge of the Nerds but with a badge and a gun.
- How about that music playing when Barbara gets a good look at the Ogre's sex dungeon? To whoever is in charge of Gotham's music: You, sir or madam as the case may be, are a little too easily excited.
- Bullock had the line of the episode — "'I specialize in fake boobs, but I believe in ethics: I need a warrant.'" — but Cobblepot came close when he described Connor as the head of "the best gun-and-knife crew in the city."
- Time for: Fanboyish Speculation! I don't know when the next gratuitous wink to established comics characters or creators is going to be, but it can't come soon enough. Here's hoping for a Ragman cameo! Ragman Begins! World’s Finest Ragmen! Ragman and Balloonman team up!